By Ruben Castaneda – Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010
A civil jury in Prince George’s County determined Thursday that Maryland state corrections and highway officials and a private dump truck driver were liable in an accident in which a prison inmate was killed by the truck while he was on a work detail. The jury awarded his relatives more than $2 million.
After a trial that lasted nearly two weeks, the jury awarded $2.025 million to relatives of Rodney Jennings, who was 28 when he was fatally injured Aug. 23, 2007, while picking up trash on the Capital Beltway in the Landover area.
Jennings was part of an inmate crew under the auspices of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Under Maryland law, many civil jury awards are capped at $680,000 for non-economic damages.
Joseph T. Mallon Jr., the attorney for Jennings’s relatives, said that even with the cap, he expects his clients to receive almost $1.4 million, because both the state and a truck driver were found liable.
“I’m relieved for the family,” Mallon said. “Although they’ll never have closure, this provides some measure of peace.” Jennings was serving a two-year sentence for drug distribution.
A lawyer with the state attorney general’s office represented the state corrections and highway agencies. Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the office, said that the verdict was being reviewed and that officials had no immediate comment.
The attorney for Wayne H. Goss Sr., the truck driver, did not respond to a phone message.
The accident occurred about 10 a.m. on the inner loop at the exit for Route 202. Members of the six-inmate litter-picking crew said Jennings and at least two other inmates were making their way across the Exit 17 ramp after picking up trash on the ramp’s other side.
As they tried to cross the ramp, Jennings was struck by the 39-ton dump truck, and his legs were crushed. He was conscious and in severe pain for 45 minutes before he died, Mallon said.
The posted speed limit at the off ramp is 40 mph. Mallon said testimony showed that Goss was driving too fast and improperly crossed a solid white line while speeding up to pass a tractor-trailer.
The lawsuit alleged that a state correctional officer mistakenly thought that a state highway dump truck was blocking the off-ramp to traffic. The lawsuit also alleged that warning signs indicating the off-ramp work area were inadequate.
“It was a completely avoidable accident, had either defendant acted in a reasonable manner,” Mallon said.
“This was a terrible tragedy, and we hope never to have another like it,” said Mark A. Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, in an e-mailed statement. “Keeping inmates safe at all times has always been one of our top priorities. Accordingly, the Division of Correction has since changed its policy regarding inmate road crews. They now are driven across ramps and similar areas, rather than crossing on foot.”
Vernarelli said that the agency was reviewing the case and that no further comments would be made until the court rules on post-trial motions.